The Toronto Maple Leafs’ leadership group has worked hard to make the organization a safe place where players want to be. For a short period of time, it seemed like the organization had become just that. However, the fallout from another playoff disappointment paints a different story.
Safe Place Moniker Started in 2015
On May 21, 2015, Mike Babcock was hired as the head coach. He appeared on Prime Time Sports and gave one of the most revealing interviews about the Maple Leafs. He talked about the challenges of playing under the microscope and how he and the team brass wanted to turn that around. “My point is this, if we create an environment – not if – when we create an environment that allows these players to be safe, it’s going to be way better. The other thing is, how many people from Ontario are playing the National Hockey League? Once we make it safe, they’re coming home.”
It had become a safe place. Perhaps the most notable example was when John Tavares signed with his hometown team. Jason Spezza signed a league minimum shortly there after. When he was put on waivers, Spezza said he would retire before playing anywhere else. Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton came home, and Travis Dermott signed a deal under market value to play for his local team.
Fans and Media Scrutiny
During the 2015 interview, Babcock asked the media and everyone listening to put themselves in the player’s shoes. He wanted fans to imagine being scrutinized for every mistake, “you get paid to hack all over us. I understand that totally,” said Babcock to the interviewer. “But just think of it as a player when you go to a press conference. You go talk to the media after you win… media is not so bad. They are actually saying good things about you. Knowing you worked really hard, and you bring it every day, and they say good things about you.”
That certainly wasn’t the case in Toronto when Babcock arrived. Nothing good was said, and the star players were hearing the bad daily. Phil Kessel went toe-to-toe with media more than once. After Kessel was traded, an article in a Toronto paper gave some insight into how he had been treated. “The hot dog vendor who parks daily at Front and John Sts. just lost his most reliable customer. Almost every afternoon at 2:30 p.m., often wearing a toque, Phil Kessel would wander from his neighbourhood condominium to consume his daily snack.” (from Leafs were Sick and Tired of Phil Kessel, Toronto Sun July 2, 2015). The writer went on to say Kessel didn’t eat right, train right, play right, and was laissez-faire, flippant, mostly uncoachable. Of course, Kessel went on to win two Stanley Cups (eating hot dogs from those Cups), and he is still being paid by the Maple Leafs.
The new crop of stars has been treated much differently than Kessel. Practically adored by the media for several years. It’s hard to bash kids doing their best in the big leagues. But those kids are now grown-ups, and they are millionaires. The criticism has escalated with the paycheque. Much of that was aimed at William Nylander and his $6.9 million deal. However, Mitch Marner has been in the crosshairs since he signed his big $10.9 million contract.
Expectations have Grown with Pay Increases
After being among the NHL’s leaders in scoring 67 points in 55 games, that deal seemed to be accepted. Then Marner struggled in the playoffs with some mental mistakes. He only put up four assists and no goals in the seven-game series loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The disappointing playoff performance has given the impression that Marner is the new whipping boy. Marner’s exit interview, and last media interview to date, he said, “it’s a complete lie,” when asked about a report stating he refused to play a goal-line role on the powerplay. “It’s just people trying to get their name out there. It sucks that stuff like that’s being said.”
If he thought that was bad, the talk since then has been worse. Media outlets and comment sections are trying to piece together trade scenarios to get the hometown boy out of Toronto. The same kid who, at four years old, appeared on a Toronto television station telling the world his favourite team was the Maple Leafs is now a top candidate to be traded away. Granted, this is speculation as the front office has stood behind Marner and the other core-four stars. The point is even mentioning trading out a guy who bleeds blue is evidence the safe place is gone. Another indication is Maple Leafs jerseys being burned, catching the attention of one of the franchise’s legendary players, Doug Gilmour.
Maple Leafs Vow to Earn Back Trust
Team President Brendan Shanahan must’ve been feeling that safety slip away. In his last interview, he said, “It’s hard for them (fans). I know it. I understand. We gave them hope they believed in us.” By admitting he had the fan perspective in mind, he continued to reach out to urge the fan base not to turn on the team. “The trust is shaken at times like this, for all organizations that don’t meet their expectations, so trust is wounded. It is up to us to come back and earn it back again.”
Who will be wearing the maple leaf on their chest to start the process of earning the trust back is unknown. Toronto may have lost its “safe place” moniker to bring homegrown talent in at a discount. Maybe Marner, who has admitted he doesn’t follow social media because of how toxic it can be, will want to get out of the microscope, and he will request a trade. As Babcock suggested, look at it from a player’s point of view. When you do that, it may be challenging to want to play in Toronto right now.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.